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USMNT-Ecuador preview: Competition level rises

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Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team has never allowed a goal, albeit with a bevy of MLS players in the USMNT shirt going against domestic-based players from Panama and Costa Rica.

Thursday’s opponent is Ecuador, and this is a proper international break. No, La Tricolor won’t present the same challenge as Chile, who visits Houston on March 26, but Antonio Valencia and Enner Valencia are a step up from the CONCACAF visitors of January and February.

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The U.S. is unbeaten in its last three matches against Ecuador, winning two and drawing one. The last meeting was during Jurgen Klinsmann’s remarkable Copa America Centenario, as the Yanks navigated Jermaine Jones’ 52nd minute red card and both sides played most of the second half with 10 men in a 2-1, Clint Dempsey-inspired win.

Berhalter’s USMNT isn’t as young this go-round, with Michael Bradley, Tim Ream, and Gyasi Zardes among those who’ve featured for several American coaches.

It’s also the first time U.S. fans will see Christian Pulisic since his sale to Chelsea and loan back to Dortmund, likely playing attacking center midfield as the most important piece of the Yanks’ XI (with apologies to John Brooks).

What will be second-most in focus for U.S. fans is Tyler Adams as right back, a move which makes sense in Berhalter’s possession system where the RB is stationed as a center mid, but takes the 20-year-old out of the center of the park when the opposition has the ball.

This most likely says that Berhalter is unwilling to take Bradley out of his lineup just yet, because Schalke’s Weston McKennie is likely to start as is Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. And it also isn’t a ringing endorsement of Newcastle’s DeAndre Yedlin, who Berhalter is calling a winger despite a distinct problem with his finishing touch.

But GB knows his stuff, and in some ways the Ecuador match is a logical progression towards a Chile which will put Arturo Vidal, Charles Aranguiz, and a back line with more than 300 combined caps on the pitch next week. So handle Ecuador, and move forward.

Official: First full USMNT squad will face Ecuador

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Hours before Gregg Berhalter’s second match as U.S. Men’s National Team coach, U.S. Soccer officially announced the USMNT’s next opponent.

The USMNT will open the March FIFA international week with a friendly match against Ecuador on Thursday, March 21 in Orlando, Fla. La Tricolor missed out on the 2018 World Cup but still features a quality side headlined by Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. FC Dallas’ Carlos Gruezo, Tigres UANL’s Enner Valencia and West Bromwich Albion’s Jefferson Montero are also regulars in the squad.

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“Ecuador has an experienced, athletic team that will provide a good test for our group. We will use this opportunity to continue to build on the foundation of the team as we develop our style of play,” Berhalter said in a statement. “Playing in Orlando City Stadium is a great soccer experience – the atmosphere is fantastic.”

The match against Ecuador is the first in a two-match series against South American sides in March. In late January, U.S. Soccer announced the USMNT would host Chile in Houston, Texas on March 26, five days after the match in Orlando.

Report: Toronto to send Giovinco to Tigres for Valencia, cash

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An Mexican site reports that Tigres UANL is ready to send Enner Valencia and cash to Toronto FC to land Sebastian Giovinco.

Normally that’s seem a bit wild for TFC to send their perennial MLS MVP candidate packing, but the club has been hesitant to meet Giovinco’s terms on a new contract.

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And Valencia is nearly three years younger and a bit bigger than Giovinco.

Valencia scored in bunches for Tigres after arriving from West Ham, scoring nine goals with an assist in 16 Apertura matches including three multi-goal games. He then saw his numbers dip to two goals and three assists in 11 Clausura appearances.

Giovinco, meanwhile, has six goals and six assists in 15 matches between MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League.

It would be a significant risk for TFC, though the idea of pairing up Enner Valencia and Jozy Altidore is a physical nightmare for MLS defenses.

Toronto FC 2-1 Tigres: Reds punch back

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Jonathan Osorio and Jozy Altidore scored second half goals as Toronto FC came back to top UANL Tigres 2-1 in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal at BMO Field on Wednesday.

Eduardo Vargas gave UANL Tigres a 1-0 lead, but the Liga MX side was behind the 8-ball the rest of the night.

The second leg is at 11 p.m. ET Tuesday at the Estadio Universitario.

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Chances were at a premium in the first half, and the match deservedly went to halftime at nil-nil.

Tigres swapped Enner Valencia for Andre-Pierre Gignac at hafltime, giving the Reds a tactical challenge in adjusting to two very different strikers.

A moment after Jozy Altidore was stymied by Jose Francisco Torres, the big TFC striker was livid with the referee’s decision to not award him a 49th minute penalty.

Vargas beat Alex Bono in the 53rd minute, the Chilean scoring in yet another big spot.

TFC should’ve been level two minutes later, but Osorio opted for using the outside of his right foot over the natural path of Altidore’s cross to his left. The shot zipped over the goal.

Giovinco won a free kick dribbling through traffic in the 57th minute, but couldn’t get his shot to dip under the bar.

Altidore put the Reds ahead when Marky Delgado one-touched the big striker in on goal, and Altidore slid the ball home to make it 1-1.

Gignac then nearly beat Bono with a similar volley to Vargas’ goal, but the ball bounded wide of the far post.

The tide had swung in Toronto’s favor, and Giovinco won another free kick — perhaps with embellishment — near the chalk of the 18. The wall served its purpose.

Michael Bradley was at his very best in producing what could’ve easily been a go-ahead goal, swooping in front of a Tigres pass and then making a nifty 1v1 move before delivering a world-class cross that Altidore bungled on the six.

Osorio got the winner in the 89th minute, backheeling Giovinco’s cross into the Tigres goal.

Chris Mavinga made an outstanding challenge to stop Ismael Sosa late.

Here’s the winner:

CONCACAF Champions League preview: Eyeing MLS chances

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The CONCACAF Champions League’s quarterfinals kick off late Tuesday evening, and a trio of Major League Soccer teams are two rounds from playing for a spot in the Club World Cup.

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That tournament in the United Arab Emirates remains nine months away for now, where the CCL winner will join the winners of the UEFA Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, the Asian Champions League, African Champions League, Oceania Champions League, and the winners of the UAE’s top flight.

MLS placed two semifinalists last season, though both Vancouver and FC Dallas failed to cement a spot in the final. Seven of the nine CCL-era tournaments have been all-Mexican, excepting Real Salt Lake’s loss in 2011 and Montreal’s loss in 2015.

Back to the present: One tie does not include an MLS side thanks to FC Dallas’ poor performance against Cinderella side Tauro of Panama. Tauro plays Club America beginning Tuesday at Estadio Azteca.

Of the three MLS sides left, who has the best chance of coming out on top? You be the judge (but it’s probably TFC).

Toronto FC

Opponent: UANL Tigres (4th place, Liga MX)

First leg: Wednesday in Toronto
Second leg: March 13 in San Nicolás

Watch out for… a pair of names who made their mark in Europe; Enner Valencia and Andre-Pierre Gignac have combined for 29 goals to lead Tigres’ attack. You’ll also remember longtime USMNT midfielder Jose Francisco Torres, but — again — TFC’s hopes are pinned to its back line keeping a handle on a pair of strong finishers (and dangerous, experienced Eduardo Vargas.


Seattle Sounders

Opponent: Chivas Guadalajara (16th place, Liga MX)

First leg: Wednesday in Seattle
Second leg: March 14 in Guadalajara

Watch out for… Don’t be misled by Guadalajara’s table status; The Mexican powers have drawn their last four matches. Their leading scorer is Alan Pulido, and Mexican national team star defender Oswaldo Alanis is at the back with Carlos Salcido. Also in the mix is a familiar name: hyped 21-year-old Orbelin Pineda.


New York Red Bulls

Opponent: Club Tijuana (6th place, Liga MX)

First leg: 10 p.m. ET Tuesday in Tijuana
Second leg: March 13 in Harrison

Watch out for… a very American roster, relative to the rest of the league. The newcomer is forward Rubio Rubin, who earned his first start on Feb. 25 and came off the bench for 32 minutes a week later. Alejandro Guido gets minutes mainly off the bench. Michael Orozco hasn’t been playing much, nor has young Fernando Arce, Jr.